WE JAM ECONO: THE STORY OF THE MINUTEMENNR
We Jam Econo begins exactly where The Minutemen began, in a small park in the industrial town of San Pedro, California. Mike Watt, bass player and founding member of The Reactionaries (who would eventually become The Minutemen) shows the camera crew the very tree where an adolescent D. Boon jumped from out of the sky and forged a friendship that would last the next 15 years. Much of what follows in director Tim Irwin and producer Keith Schieron's conventional yet loving documentary is an intensely personal look at The Minutemen and the life of front man Boon. This one's for the fans.
The Minutemen, a three-piece band from Southern California, the natal location of American punk's second wave, lasted a brief four years but was known for their incessant touring and an impressive discography featuring a mountain of songs of miniscule length. Formed in 1980, the trio confounded audiences until the death of Boon from a tragic car accident in 1985. Guitarist and singer Boon was known for trebly solos, Watt for his low, finger-slapping bass, and drummer Hurley for his technical chops that could have suited an early jazz band. The result was a disjointed sound that shared little with contemporary SoCal punk music. But as We Jam Econo brilliantly points out, The Minutemen were less interested in following punk by the numbers, and more interested in covering Creedence Clearwater Revival and writing short yet oddly catchy songs and angsty lyrics. The song "World War III," dedicated to Ronald Reagan, features the lines "I try to talk to girls/All I can think about is World War III." Their first album, Paranoid Time, was the second to appear on SST Records, following Black Flag's far more aggressive and traditional Nervous Breakdown. The result was a band loved by its fans but hated by much of the early '80s punk audience. In some early concert footage, The Minutemen refuse to leave the stage in front of a clearly antagonistic crowd. How punk is that?
The filmmakers pull out all the stops with a huge cache of interview subjects, ranging from indie-rock heavyweights and contemporaries to childhood friends and parents. But the dozens of interviews are provided without context, making this 85-minute documentary feel somewhat impersonal. An interview with Ed Crawford lasts only a few seconds and makes no mention of the band fIREHOSE, which he started with Watt and Hurley following Boon's death. And much of what is presented in Econo has already been explored in Michael Azerrad's 2001 book Our Band Could Be Your Life. But the film also contains some true gems, such as when Joe Baida of Saccharine Trust calibrates his amplifier to replicate Boon's whiny Stratocaster sound. The great guitarists are all known for their unique sound (think Jimi Hendrix) and Boon may have been the most unique of them all.
While much of the documentary is devoted to the friendships and relationships of the band, much of their history is skimmed over in a cursory way. Only a few minutes are devoted to the seminal 1984 double album, Double Nickels on the Dime (a dig at Sammy Hagar's sophomoric "Can't Drive 55" as well as a response to Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade).
Most powerful here are the interviews with Mike Watt, Boon's best friend and keeper of the flame. Most of Watt's interview is conducted in his tour van, "The Boat," as he drives around San Pedro and gives a poignant tour of everything Minutemen: their first concert venue opening for Black Flag, their high school, apartments, even college. Watt remarks, "That's where I got my degree. Never used it, though. I majored in punk." Watt's observations ground the film, and it's obvious that when Watt speaks of Boon he's thinking not of a band-mate but a 12-year-old kid playing army.
And that is the strength behind We Jam Econo. It's not a story so much about The Minutemen but about D. Boon. The grainy, washed-out video footage of The Minutemen is used to paint a portrait of Boon and his larger-than-life personality. Known for his girth among otherwise skinny punks, he developed eccentricities such as pogoing on stage in "old man" patent leather shoes and becoming completely lost in the emotion of his songs. The footage, including a 1985 band interview, is a treat to watch, particularly near the end when Irwin edits different performances over several years to present a continuous rendition of the classic "Little Man with a Gun in his Hand." Boon was only 27 when he died on Dec. 22, 1985, but his short life left an indelible mark not only on rock 'n' roll but also on the lives of those he knew and the fans lucky enough to have discovered his music.